After suffering from a traumatic accident, a photographer (Abbie Cornish) experiences severe memory loss. Her psychiatrist (Justin Long) encourages her to revisit the family farm where she grew up, and there she begins to piece together the puzzle of her past.
Creative Screenwriting sat down with writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly to discuss putting ego to one side, foreseeing the final movie, and writing tension like Alfred Hitchcock.
Can you share a little information about your background and how you got into filmmaking?
My background was really in theater. My dad was a prominent theater director in the ‘70s in Canada, and founded a theater, so I sort of grew up in that environment and started directing myself. I was always interested in film, but at the time, it seemed very technical and expensive. You could go and make a play at a fringe show for next to nothing, but to make a movie scene was just out of my league.
Then the Canon XL1 came out in the ‘70s, and cheap movie cameras that actually looked similar to film were accessible. I ended up taking a job as a director’s assistant on a movie, and it kind of demystified the process from the technical perspective. I realised, “I don’t need to know how to do every one of these jobs. There’s other people to delegate to.”
So, suddenly, it all started seeming much more feasible. I started doing short films, and then that eventually grew into music videos, and a few years later, my first features. That’s the arc.
And how did you kind of get into writing?
I guess I started in high school. I was always writing.
I would direct a lot of things that weren’t mine, but work on my own on the side. In film, so far, I’ve at least been one of the writers in everything I’ve done.
In fact, I also edit. And up until now, I’ve edited everything I’ve done. I’ve always felt like the script is one version of writing. The director part of me sort of rewrites it as he would do it, and then the editor looks over all the mistakes the director made, and then rewrites it once again. For me, it all feels like part of the same process.
Have any of your ideas about a film you were making changed during the process between writing, directing and editing?
Yes. Monumentally. My second release, Small Town Murder Songs, it couldn’t be more different in terms of what the original script was and the final result.
The biggest thing I came away with is I didn’t need as much as I thought. At the outset I thought I would need all these things, but then, when I actually started cutting the movie, it became clear from the beginning that I could be much more succinct. Even though it was a pretty sparse film, there was a lot of time and pace that just was getting eaten up by sort of whole scenes that were not accomplishing enough.
For me, when looking at a scene, it has to accomplish at least two things. It can’t just be there for character development, or just for plot, or just for theme. If a scene is only accomplishing one of those, then it’s probably not pulling its weight.
If a scene is just there for exposition, for me, those are often the ones that get cut, and I’ll throw that exposition as an arc for some other scene.
Lavender is very close to what the script was, but even so, there are scenes that we cut out, and a few ideas that we changed just in terms of the order, by changing the order in which certain things happen. And some of that’s just a response, I think, to seeing the performance and getting inspired.
The script can’t be just the bible because it doesn’t exist on its own. At the end of the day, it’s all about the movie. I have to put the writer’s ego aside when I direct, and I have to put the director’s ego aside when I edit. And I see it as just one constant process until it’s something on a screen in front of people.
Where did the original idea for Lavender come from?
From my co-writer, Colin Frizzell. It his original idea, the basic story.
He’d given it to me years ago. I liked it, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it meant to me. Then he did some more work on it, and eventually, I actually hired him to do more work on it. We did that for a while, but still not quite to a point where we were making traction with it. So we put it in a drawer. Then later I started writing it, and we would go back and forth.
So of all the movies I’ve been involved with, it’s the one that was the most nebulous in terms of where the inspiration came from. Because certainly Colin had an initial idea, but then I got inspired by that and changed it in a different direction and handed it back to him.
There was always something that sort of drew us back into the idea of a haunting as a metaphor in terms of memory. Not so much that ghosts are ghosts, but the idea that ghosts could be a suppressed memory trying to make their way to the surface.
The trick was figuring out the ‘why now?’ of the story. Which is to say, why do the events in the movie happen now, what is it in the protagonist’s life that puts her in a place where these things can suddenly happen, so that it is more than just coincidence or just a random encounter?
We wanted to find a way to ground it in something meaningful to the characters, and that took a while to really figure out. But I think that once we did, things started to click and come together, and it wasn’t long before we were actually making the movie.
What were some of the cinematic influences on this film?
One of the bigger influences, visually, would probably be The Shining or The Others. The Shining, because it’s such a stunning visual piece. And The Others, because that was the movie that really interested me in the genre. I thought it was a wonderful character story with great performances, that happened to be set in a creepy supernatural world.
I’m intrigued by the horror genre, but to believe in it, it has to be superbly acted and the characters have to be believable. And that is always where the genre really misfires, when it’s more about “let’s scare people, and throw logic and characters to the wind.”
But in The Others, I was mesmerized by Nicole Kidman’s performance. You’ve just got a great story and great performances, and the whole thing suddenly comes together and makes sense. You wouldn’t think of that necessarily as a horror movie, but just as a great movie that happens to be supernatural.
What was the most difficult step in writing Lavender?
The ‘why now?’ was really tripping me up. In the original version of the script, it was kind of random: twenty years after the events occurred, weird things suddenly started happening.
Also, the character was at a pretty happy, stable point in their life, then suddenly bad things happened, and by the end of the movie, they basically got back to where they were at the beginning of the film. For me, that meant the movie didn’t really accomplish anything.
Whereas if the character has a pre-existing condition, then through undergoing the trials of the movie, they have a catharsis that actually heals them and makes them move forward. The inciting incident is really long before the movie in some ways.
Then there’s actually a sense of greater accomplishment than in a classic horror movie where you move into a haunted house, bad things happen, then you go back to your life. That would just be straight genre, and I’m much more interested in how to tell a story that exists beyond just the surface of the genre.
When you do decide to make a genre film like this one, how do you decide what makes a scene scary?
It’s a combination of aesthetics. I actually find dread much more effective than a scare. It goes back to that classic Hitchcock quote, which I’ll paraphrase…If you see a group of people having lunch and a bomb goes off, you startle the audience for a second. But if you see people having lunch, and you then see a bomb, and then you watch them eat, you’re riveted by the question of “When’s it going to go off?” And the whole scene is suddenly imbued with a massive amount of tension.
And that is what I actually find much more riveting than the “scare scene”. It’s more the dread and the fear of what’s going to happen, and playing off the audience’s imagination, versus the actual delivery.
That’s what I find much more effective to me, and so that’s what I tend to focus on. I mean, obviously, there are things that are startling and scary, but for me, the bigger fundamental that I’m always interested in is creating a sense of fear of what’s to come before you actually see it.
Tell me about your writing process.
I procrastinate many times a day! I write on my own. I used to write in cafes and bars, but now that I’ve got two kids, I tend to write more at home.
I mostly just point-form ideas out in a notebook, whether it’s a basic idea for a movie or some kind of element. It sits in my mind for a bit, and then I’ll go back and start filling it out.
Step one is the point-form. Then when I really get into it, I figure out the whole structure and put down in a few pages what the movie is and where it goes: basically my first thesis statement. So I can see the beginning, middle and end of the movie.
After that I can dive in and sort of shoot off a draft quite quickly. Whether it’s good or bad, it’ll at least be representative of that idea. And then I rewrite as necessary, gauging how effective it was, how good a job I did with the writing.
I don’t see my job stopping at just the script, because even when I’m hired to write something I may or may not be directing, I have to sort of imagine directing it and seeing that result…That’s just the way I guess my brain works. I see writing as just one step in the process, and I’m always just trying to imagine the final movie and not just the script.
What mistakes do you think novice writers or new filmmakers make?
Going to film festivals and actually meeting peers was an important part of the process for me, creatively. I could make a short film and then tour with it.
But one of the big mistakes I think I made was that when I was getting some attention, and people were liking some of the shorts I did, I didn’t have a feature script. So you can spend too much time making short films.
And then, after I made my first feature, I certainly did not have the second feature script ready. So if somebody would say, “That was really great, what else do you want to do?” I didn’t have an answer.
So I think one enormous mistake you can make is trying to just work on one script and nail it, and spend too long on it.
Also, one of the things I personally find is that sometimes you just need space away from a script, and that was definitely the case with Lavender.
So I’m a big advocate of writing eight to ten different things at any given time. Obviously not on the same day or week. But I’ll get a script to a certain place, and then maybe get some feedback on it while I work on something else. Or if I’m stuck on something, I just walk away from it and jump back to one of the others.
And always, then when I come back to it, I find I’ve got a renewed sense of objectivity and fresh ideas. Whereas if you just keep slaving away at the one thing, I think you just can’t see the forest for the trees any more.
Featured image: Abbie Cornish as Jane in Lavender, an AMBI Media Group release. Photo courtesy of AMBI Media Group.